Pirate Punishment and Doubloons
Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski
It would be an unfair statement to say that a lighthearted way of life in the 18th century was restricted to piracy. During this period, death was often sudden, in the midst of battle, by shipwreck, tavern brawls, disease, etc. But then, there was always death by ‘dancing the hempen jig’, a pirate’s term for a hanging, which awaited any pirate brought to trial, and sentenced.
Trials for piracy, were usually held in admiralty courts, tribunes, that had been founded in 1340’s in England, for trials concerning crimes committed beyond the high water mark. It was possible for a member of the pirate crew to turn King’s evidence and testify against his fellow pirates, for which a pardon was granted, but only after the others had been convicted. Once convicted, the pirate could be hanged any time ten days after the trial.
On the day of the hanging, the condemned pirates were led in a procession led by an officer carrying the Silver Oar, which symbolized the authority of the High Court of the Admiralty. The final destination was the gallows, which was usually positioned in a public place near the water, often at the low-tide mark. The entire event, like all hangings was a spectacle that drew large crowds.
Before the actual hanging, a chaplain usually gave a sermon, urging the convicted to profess their faith, and repent, before being hung. Often the sermon would also preach to the audience, using the pirates as prime examples of the degeneracy of a human soul After the sermon, the pirate was allowed to speak to the people before being swung off the cart beneath the gallows. In their last speech, before execution, some appeared to be repentant, some frightened, others surly, while there were those who told crude jokes to the crowds.
After the execution, the bodies of the less significant crew members, were buried face down, below the high water mark, or left hanging until three tides had passed over them. The bodies of the most notorious captains, were often embalmed in tar, encased in an iron framework or chains, and hung from a gibbet in a conspicuous place by the water edge, where they swayed in the wind, until nothing was left. This served as a frightening example to those leaning towards the tempting rewards of piracy.
The punishment for privateering was imprisonment, with the possibility of being released in a prisoner exchange. This however was not a favorable alternative to the noose since it often meant a prolonged death, in prison hulks, which were converted naval ships that were no longer seaworthy, or goals, which were usually damp and disease-ridden.
It is probably an obvious statement to say that the main force behind piracy, has always been the search for wealth. Pirates were able to acquire amazing riches, and goods, through their campaigns. The assets, of which the most noted, and often most prized were; gold and silver pieces, currency, jewelry, and precious stones. But the actual pirate booty, was acquired from looted merchant ships which usually included items such as linens, cloths, food, anchors, rope, and sometimes medical supplies. The cargo even included rare articles such as spices, sugar, indigo, and quinine.
The types of goods pillaged, depended on the type of ship encountered, therefore many pirates were very selective in the ship they attacked, to be certain that the booty received was worth the risks of battle. It was equally important for the captain to choose the most rewarding area to monitor. One such area was the Spanish Main, rewards of which attracted many pirates. It was a well known fact in the pirate archives, that the Spanish treasure fleet made frequent yearly visits to Portobello to load treasure from Peru, which was twice the yearly revenue of England's King, and often included 25 million pesos in the form of silver bars, and coins.
Choosing the right ship and the right cargo to pillage, was an essential part of any pirate ship captain’s duty, wishing to avoid mutiny. However, failing to attack a promising ship, could also result in a similar outcome, since most of his crew were sailing, for a share in the plundered goods.
Another concern was the actual method for dividing the assets acquired. The pirate code, stated that, any loot plundered, had to be shared out equally. Some treasure was more easily divided among the crew than others. For example, certain coins, such as pieces of eight were cut up into smaller change. However, jewels were not as easily divisible. Evidence of the dividing process, can be observed in the Pirate knife markings on some of the pirate loot, on exhibition in museums around the world.
The idea of buried treasure is mostly a mythical one, as it is romantically portrayed in books such as Treasure Island. One pirate however, who may have started the myth, and was known for burying his treasure was Captain Kidd. But even though some pirates may have hid their plunder in this way, a great deal more money was spent searching for it, than has ever been uncovered. Most pirates were extreme squanderers and rarely accumulated enough treasure to bury. Due to the danger and uncertainty of their profession, they were usually determined to live life for the present, and not save for the future.